Twelve books for Christmas

susan-yin-2JIvboGLeho-unsplashA few ideas for holiday reading: mostly crime and mystery novels plus a few books in other genres, listed alphabetically. (Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash)

A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley: The film Lion was based on this book. An Indian boy from a poor village gets trapped on a train, is taken into an orphanage far from home, adopted by an Australian couple, and then in adult life manages to reconnect with his birth family. An extraordinary true story, sincerely told in simple prose.

Normal People by Sally Rooney: this novel about the on-off relationship between two young adults in Ireland has won several prizes, but the reviews on Amazon are mixed. Like a number of other readers I found myself losing interest in the story halfway through, but appreciated the original writing style.

Platform Seven by Louise Doughty: A psychological thriller told from the viewpoint of a ghost who haunts Peterborough Station. Although this literary device didn’t quite work for me, the back story of a controlling male-female relationship is convincingly portrayed, and the account of a railway suicide and its effect on observers is chilling.

Red Joan by Jennie Rooney: A novel loosely inspired by the life of Melita Norwood, a British civil servant and Soviet spy. An elderly widow living quietly in London is arrested by MI5, and interrogated about the events that followed her meeting with communist sympathisers when she was a naive and idealistic student in Cambridge during the 1930s.

Sleep by CL Taylor: A modern variant on the country house murder mystery. Anna, traumatised by a car crash and unjustly blamed for the death of one of her passengers, leaves London to work in a hotel on a remote Scottish island but finds the guests are not what they seem.

The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter: A lucid explanation of basic statistical concepts, illustrated by published research studies in the medical and social fields.  The results of such studies are sometimes misinterpreted, for example the health risks of eating bacon have been widely exaggerated in the media.

The Dragon of God by Earl Thor: An intelligent and fast-paced American thriller involving serial killings, religious fanaticism, near-death experiences, reincarnation, and the romance between a theology professor and a neuroscientist. It reminded me of Dan Brown’s novels and was just as good.

The Secretary by Renee Knight: Highly efficient at her job but unfulfilled in her personal life, the secretary in this novel is obsessively devoted to the charismatic but unscrupulous businesswoman who employs her. Eventually her devotion is exploited too far and she determines on revenge.

The Sound of her Voice by Nathan Blackwell: This crime thriller, clearly informed by the author’s former career as a police detective, is set in the Auckland region close to where I live. It’s an absorbing story, and highlights the mental and physical trauma experienced by frontline staff dealing with violent deaths. It contains some graphic descriptions of the murder of young women, and a lot of swear words.

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay: My own experience as an NHS junior doctor in the 1970s was hard enough, but what Adam Kay went through in the early 2000s sounds far worse. His book, based on extracts from the diary he kept during obstetrics and gynaecology training, uses black humour to convey the stress of managing an impossible workload with inadequate facilities. In the end it became too much, and the medical profession lost a skilled and dedicated doctor.

Where Rowans Intertwine by Margaret Grant: This long historical romance is set in the island of Mona (now called Anglesey) off the coast of Wales, almost two thousand years ago. The story charts the relationship between a young Druid priestess and a surgeon from the occupying Roman army. The author explains that the book took ten years to write, and was the product of detailed research combined with spiritual inspiration.  

You Yet Shall Die by Jennifer Barraclough: And lastly my own latest novel, a story of family secrets and a long-ago crime, set in rural England. 

 

Should friends review each others’ books?

If a friend or acquaintance who has published a book offers to give you a free copy in exchange for writing a review, should you accept?

It’s a compliment to be asked, and the arrangement can work out to mutual benefit if you enjoy reading the book and can honestly give it unqualified praise and a 5-star review. Most authors will also be happy with 4-stars, though others will be disappointed.

But what if you think the book is mediocre, or worse? I would never insult the author by posting a negative review (I still find it hard to forgive the person who posted a damning verdict on the book I had gifted her via a Goodreads Giveaway). Nor would I feel comfortable with “forgetting” to review it, pretending not to have time, or posting an untruthful positive review. Sending a private message to the author, explaining your reservations, can be the best option. They may appreciate your comments and even go on to revise their book, but may feel hurt or offended.

To avoid such potentially awkward situations, I suggest asking to read an excerpt from your friend’s book before agreeing to accept a review copy. This gives you the option of declining in a way that saves face on both sides, for example on the grounds that you are not sufficiently familiar with the genre or subject-matter to make a fair assessment.

I understand that Amazon can block reviews if they discover that author and reader know each other. If there has only been a distant email acquaintanceship this would seem unduly harsh, but in other cases reasonable enough to avoid the problems outlined above, and to discourage the practice of “I’ll review your book if you’ll review mine”.

Except in special circumstances I don’t give free copies of my own books to friends, for fear of putting them under an obligation to say they like them even if they don’t. I do tell them when I’ve published a new one, and am very pleased if they choose to buy it and, better still, write a good review of their own accord.

Don’t kill the dog … or cat, or horse

In a blog post called Don’t Kill the Dog, crime writer Tess Gerritsen describes her fans’ outrage over the killing of animals in her fiction. The death of a cat in a novel about the Holocaust, and the death of a dog in a horror movie that also featured mutilated human bodies, provoked a tirade of anger and distress. The suffering of the people portrayed in these works did not arouse protest. She advises “…you must never, ever kill a pet in your novel. You can torture and mutilate any number of human beings. You can slice and dice women, massacre men on a battlefield, and readers will keep turning the pages. But harm one little chihuahua and you’ve gone too far. The readers will let you have it.”

Why do so many of us get upset about animals being hurt in books and films, while caring much less about the people? Although this response may seem difficult to justify, I can empathise with it. seldom feel distressed about the fate of the human characters in the crime novels I read, though I do dislike anything too graphic or violent, preferring “cosier” murder mysteries and psychological thrillers. But I cannot tolerate the idea animals being abused or killed. I have perhaps become more sensitised to animal cruelty in recent years through voluntary work at the SPCA, having seen some of the appalling things that people can do to their so-called pets, whether as a result of ignorance or through deliberate sadism.

Animal abuse in the media is bad enough when it is fictional. Far worse is the suffering of real animals involved in the film industry. For example, countless horses died during the making of Western movies during the 20th century. The situation is better today, with some modern films using CGI animals rather than live ones, and in some countries with monitoring by organisations such as the Humane Society of America. Such monitoring cannot always prevent accidents, or control what may happen off set. The disclaimer “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” can be difficult to believe.

Depiction of animal cruelty in the media is not only unpleasant, but can convey the message that this is a trivial issue, and a valid topic for entertainment. I will not knowingly go to see any film that contains scenes of animal cruelty. If such a scene unexpectedly turns up while I am watching I close my eyes, then sometimes leave the cinema. If I come across animal cruelty in the middle of a book I stop reading it, as recently happened with an Icelandic thriller I had been enjoying up to that point. These individual protests make me feel better but probably have little wider effect.

Having said all this, I have to admit that the plots of two of the novels that I wrote some years ago involved the accidental poisoning of a cat and a dog respectively. Even though both animals had made a full recovery by the end of the stories, I rather regret it. There is no animal cruelty in my latest novel You Yet Shall Die, but the plot does feature a rescue kitten modelled on my own pet Magic.

Magic jumping

       

Beating post-publication blues

One of the sections in my little ebook Wellbeing for Writers draws some fanciful parallels between writing a book and having a baby. There may be feelings of depression following publication (“birth”), and a time interval before being able to conceive another book (“child”).

Some writers manage to avoid such problems by keeping two or more books in different stages of completion on the go at any one time. I have never managed this myself, preferring to focus all my energies on a single project. I felt quite euphoric after my latest novel You Yet Shall Die had been published and received positive reviews. But my mood slumped after the initial peak of sales had subsided, because I did not have another novel in mind.

However, knowing that the best remedy for post-publication blues is to keep writing, I asked my husband Brian if I could edit some of his autobiographical essays and collate them into a memoir. So that is what I am working on now. Brian grew up during the 1930s in what was then a downmarket seaside settlement on Auckland’s North Shore. His ambition to become a doctor was inspired by an inpatient stay in a tuberculosis unit when he was 18. He graduated from the University of Otago, and having decided to specialise in mental disorders, obtained a training post at the Maudsley Hospital in London. During his three years there he worked for some of the most eminent psychiatrists of the day, and had experiences ranging from daily psychoanalysis to taking LSD. After leaving the Maudsley, Brian joined the Medical Research Council’s unit in Chichester, to study the clinical and epidemiological aspects of suicide.

Another remedy for the post-publication blues is to take a break from writing and do something completely different. Outdoor activities here in Auckland are a pleasure now that spring has arrived; the flowers are in bloom, and it is (just) warm enough to swim.

marigolds

Good Books July-September 2019

Books photo unsplash

Here’s the latest roundup of books I’ve enjoyed reading lately, mostly crime and mystery novels and a few general titles. They are listed in alphabetical order.

A Keeper by Graham Norton: A gentle and somewhat old-fashioned mystery involving family secrets. Following her mother’s death, a woman returns to her childhood home in rural Ireland and explores her father’s identity. Graham Norton’s writing reveals a more thoughtful and sensitive aspect to his personality than is apparent from his TV show.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper: Five work colleagues,  all women, embark somewhat reluctantly on a “team-building” exercise in the Australian bush. They get lost, run out of food and water, and quarrel among themselves before one of them goes missing. The hostile environment is vividly described, making me feel very thankful not to be there.

Middle England by Jonathan Coe:  Classified on Amazon as “political fiction”, this long novel follows a group of middle-class characters over the years before and after the Brexit referendum. I chose it because I still follow the UK news since moving to New Zealand 20 years ago. Society has changed in many ways since I left, and Coe paints a witty if somewhat depressing picture of the current tensions, for example around the topic of immigration.

Mind to Matter by Dawson Church: Since attending a series of courses at the College of Healing in England, many years ago now, I have been trying to reconcile its teachings with my training in orthodox medicine. This book summarises numerous research studies that support the idea that energy creates matter and that “thoughts become things”. There is a lot of technical detail but not much about its clinical relevance, for example how the human energy field may relate to the auras and chakras or how the memory of water may relate to homeopathy, and the only therapies described are EFT (tapping) and meditation. The final message is the simple one of think positive.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty: I was attracted to this one because the action takes place in an upmarket wellness retreat in Australia, not too dissimilar to the one where Brian and I stayed last year. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first part, with character development set against tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the regime, but found the later chapters protracted.

Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler by Cate Haste: Growing up in Vienna at the turn of the century, Alma Schindler/Mahler/Gropius/Werfel possessed outstanding musical talent, physical beauty and sexual allure. The conventions of the time prevented a woman from pursuing a professional career as a composer, and Alma’s first husband Gustav Mahler forbade her to express her musicality until towards the end of his life. Deeply frustrated by this sacrifice, she channeled her energies into a frenetic series of marriages and affairs with creative men.

Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman: A young London couple on honeymoon in a luxury tropical resort make a gruesome discovery. Thwarted in their cursory attempt to hand the matter over to the proper authorities, they decide to use it for their own financial gain and are soon drawn into a web of intrigue involving the criminal underworld and the undermining of their relationship. Despite some loose ends in the plot and an improbable ending, this is a gripping psychological thriller.

The End of the Line by Gillian Galbraith: During the 1980s, a number of patients with haemophilia were accidentally infected with the HIV virus through contaminated blood products. This intelligent medico-legal thriller is set many years later, when a retired Scottish haematologist is called to give evidence in a court case related to the scandal, and then dies in suspicious circumstances. The elderly bookseller dealing with his estate sets out to investigate. There are some rather gruelling descriptions of the decrepitude of old age.

The Holiday by TM Logan: Four 40-ish women friends, along with their husbands and children, spend a summer holiday in a villa in France. The surroundings are luxurious but, with suspicions of infidelity between the adults and disturbed behaviour among the teenagers, the atmosphere soon becomes strained. The escalating tensions culminate in the death of one member of the group.

What we Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde: An Iranian woman with a revolutionary past becomes a refugee in Sweden, is widowed, and then diagnosed with terminal cancer. The subject-matter of this short novel makes it sound like heavy going, but the dry humour and lack of sentimentality make it a worthwhile read.

And at the end of the alphabet my own book You Yet Shall Die, a story of family secrets and concealed crime set in southern England in the recent past, has a couple of good reviews on Amazon’s UK site.

Domestic Noir in Sussex and Kent

Most fiction is autobiographical to some extent. Both the theme and the setting of my new novel You Yet Shall Die reflect my personal experience.

Two years ago, I found out that I had a half-brother and a half-sister I knew nothing about, and this planted the seed of the story. The novel begins with the protagonist Hilda receiving a visit from a woman who claims to be her late father’s child. From then on, however, the plot of the novel bears no resemblance to my own life. Whereas the contact with my new-found relatives has proved entirely positive, this is not the case for Hilda and her brother Dunstan. Dunstan, already stressed by problems at home and at work, suffers a physical and mental breakdown and his actions almost lead to tragedy. Hilda is compelled to explore the mysteries in their family background, and some shocking secrets from their parents’ past are revealed. The content is not so dark as this summary suggests because there are touches of humour, references to cats, and a reasonably happy ending.

My early childhood was spent in Gravesend, Kent, and sometimes at weekends my grandfather would take me for walks on the nearby marshes. Why I should feel inspired to set the main part of my novel there I have no idea, and it was a rather inconvenient choice because I had not been back there for so long, and visiting from my present home in New Zealand was quite an undertaking. I was in fact able to spend two days in the area in May, walking in the rain across the desolate landscape which did not seem to have changed much over the years. Carol Davidson’s book On the Marshes, and her online videos, were a great help. The East Sussex coast, another old haunt, features in one chapter. Another is set in a 1960s London cabaret club – not part of my personal experience, so the biographical material from In Disgrace With Fortune by Jean Hendy-Harris was a useful resource.

In a previous post I discussed the pitfalls of writing about the recent past, for example it is easy to forget that not so long ago most people did not have access to the internet or carry mobile phones. The timeline of You Yet Shall Die shifts between 1953 and 2005 and I chose these dates to be historically accurate, fitting in with the availability of certain drugs and medical procedures mentioned in the book. I have set the scene by occasional reference to contemporary novels, music and events. 

As discussed in another previous post, classifying crime fiction isn’t an exact science. I describe You Yet Shall Die as “domestic noir” because the plot involves crime, both past and present, rooted in family secrets and tensions. But unlike some books in this sub-genre, it is not exclusively told from the feminist viewpoint, and nor is it too “noir”.

You Yet Shall Die is available from online retailers including Amazon.com (Kindle and paperback), Amazon.co.uk (Kindle), Amazon.co.uk (paperback), and from Smashwords.com in various ebook formats.

I loved it! I really liked the characters and the sense of buried secrets gradually coming to light. And the twists were excellent, very clever! Sarah S, NZ

A well-constructed novel of would-be, actual and closet murderers joined together by blood … this story would be listed as cozy crime in the publisher’s genre list even though the book is anything but cosy … a revelatory read. Julian T, UK

SMASHWORDS COVER

Kent

Dogsharing

From today’s Telegraph newspaper:

Dog owners have lower blood pressure, are less likely to be obese and are on average 2.2lbs lighter than people without canine companions, scientists have discovered. 

A study by the Mayo Clinic and Italian researchers showed that people with dogs are far healthier than those with either no pets, or those who own a different animal.

Dog owners also earned more, exercised more, were more likely to be women and were less likely to have diabetes.

Overall, all pet owners had a better lifestyle than those who did not own an animal, but those with dogs were found to be the healthiest. 

I don’t have a dog of my own, but for over a year now I have enjoyed a part-time relationship with a young black Labrador dog called Ireland. He was registered with The Dogshare Collective  when one of his human family suffered an injury and was temporarily unable to walk him. I started taking him out in the afternoons, and have continued doing so although his owner’s injury is now recovered.

Ireland was bred to become a guide dog for the blind, but due to a minor defect in his own vision he was withdrawn from training and made available for adoption as a family pet. Large, friendly and exuberant, he loves playing with other dogs and like most Labradors he has an insatiable appetite. We go to the local beach, and once a week to the “playdate” in the park, where he spends an hour rushing round with all his friends of guide dog stock.

There are many people who, for various reasons, cannot have a dog of their own but would like to help to look after someone else’s. And there are many dogs who, often because their owners are out at work all day, could benefit from some additional exercise and company. Organisations such as The Dogshare Collective offer the valuable service of putting these two groups in contact with one another.

    Ireland labyrinth edited

There are no dogs in my latest novel You Yet Shall Die, but the story does feature some cats. Please have a look on Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk or Smashwords.com.